Bri Holland is currently promoting The Vocal Company’s Find Your Voice original music competition, for which entries are due March 15. The following interview was conducted via email between Holland and A Cappella Blog Content Manager Mike Chin.
Bri Holland is nothing if not original. Over the last five years, she’s made a major name for herself in the a cappella world. During her time at the University of Chicago she was a driving creative force for both Men in Drag and Voices in Your Head (a group with which she sang at the ICCA Finals in 2012). Since college, she’s been an active part of a cappella groups like Lady Jaye, and has had a huge impact as a producer for The Vocal Company (TVC).
To that point, TVC has launched one of Holland’s initiatives, Find Your Voice—a video-based competition that challenged a cappella groups to write, arrange, and perform all-original music. Holland has served as producer for the competition and is one of the judges for the first round of it. “We've been talking internally at TVC for a long time about ways to encourage and promote original music in the a cappella community,” Holland said. “My vision for the songwriting competition was motivated by the lack of structured community support surrounding original music. Often, groups will write one original song and then bail, either because the one songwriter in the group graduated and/or because the groups didn't see tangible rewards from daring to venture outside the box. With this competition, we want to show those songwriters and those groups that there is a community that is inspired by them, wants to listen to them, and is eager to push them forward. Deke Sharon, Ingrid Andress, and Avi Kaplan are part of that community, as are The Exchange and The Swaggernautz; they've all been in the trenches paving the way for original music in the mainstream.”
As most fans of contemporary a cappella are well aware, the form tends to rely heavily on covers of existing pop music. Holland acknowledged the merits of covers—particularly ones that take a different or more passionate spin on familiar songs. However, she went on to note that, “nothing can say exactly what you want to say better than your own words. Listen to Rajaton's "Butterfly," m-pact's "Without Your Love," VoiceMale's "Phoenix," Voices in Your Head's "Boomerang," The Boxettes' "Free," Street Corner Symphony's "Voodoo," ARORA's "Reconcile," The House Jacks' "You Were Everything." They're all so different. You don't have to like all of them. You don't have to like any of them. But each one communicates something that no other song on earth does, because no other song was written and performed by this set of people.”
Holland went on to note some of the practical elements of supporting original music in a cappella, including a desire “to push a cappella to new audiences and keep it exciting for ourselves;” the merits of having audience members leave shows not humming established songs like “Pompeii” or “Royals,” but rather music that the group itself designed; and the history of vocal music or music originally written for a cappella (such as Sara Bareilles’s “Gravity”) succeeding with mainstream audiences. Holland articulated that, “the more we show the music business and the world that original a cappella music is worth supporting and developing, the more lucrative it will be.”
Holland has, herself, participated in writing original music. At the University of Chicago, she co-wrote “Something in the Water” with Markie Gray for Men in Drag, to function as an anthem for an album they were working on. “Markie wrote lyrics and sent them to me, and I sent back a really silly video, breaking down the bass line and the lead melody, for her to give feedback on,” Holland explained. “We went back and forth once or twice, editing lyrics and breaking down the musical structure, until we got to a point where I could write the full vocal arrangement.” Holland also teamed up with Chris Rishel to co-write “Life of the Mind” for Voices in Your Head. Holland indicated they were influenced the band Dream Theater and wanted to “play with the possibilities that recorded music (and later, our Ableton system) afforded us in terms of writing an honestly compelling all-vocal prog rock song.” Holland wrote lyrics and Rishel headed up the music for a piece that they reshaped and edited together, and into which Holland wove pieces of a Charlie Chaplin speech from The Great Dictator.
Holland sympathized with groups that may be hesitant about writing original songs. “The first time your group gets together to start learning your song, it doesn't have to be the completed masterpiece,” she said, “[but] songs will evolve just like arrangements evolve to suit the people singing them.”
Regarding the Find Your Voice competition, Holland indicated, “The judges are looking for sophistication of songwriting technique, suitability to vocal music, and different types of marketability. Groups can stand out by delivering a message that is honest to them and successfully getting the reaction out of their audience that they want. Whether that goal is to get us to get up and dance, or to empathize with a character, or to walk through a story, or to clap our hands, or to laugh, or to cry, if a group meets the goals they set up for themselves, we as an audience (and as judges) are going to get attached.”
Entries to Find Your Voice are due March 15, and The Vocal Company anticipates that the winners will be notified on May 1. Holland was quick to note remind groups, though, that “songwriting doesn't end when we announce the winners! I'm looking forward to making connections with songwriters and working on projects (more on this soon) that will help keep the momentum up year-round!”